Monthly Archives: November 2013

Writing advice: Personal quirks and preferences are not “rules”

Science

Science

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know I’m not big on writing rules… unless they are backed by evidence. I’m a science-brained person. If you tell me all writers should do X, please show me some stats.

I’m going to steal an example from myself: I while back I blogged about how so many experts say, “You must join a writing group.” In my post, I asked why. I didn’t say writing groups weren’t good for some people; I merely wanted evidence that being in a writing group increases my chances of publication or makes me a better writer. Because if it doesn’t, why must I join one? Statements aren’t proof of themselves.

Ok. In the world of science, it’s standard practice to back up statements with hard data. Since the goals of writers vary so much, and “better” isn’t a concrete measurement, let’s expand the parameters to include common-sense proof.

For example, agents often advise, “Don’t send a 10-page query letter. I’m not going to read it.” Read enough agent blogs and websites and you will see, again and again, instructions to limit your query to one page, or the equivalent in e-mail form. That should be enough common-sense proof that “Don’t send a 10-page query” is good advice.

Same thing with, “Keep your first manuscript under 90,000 words.” It’s a good, common-sense suggestion. Occasionally a debut novel will be a massive epic, but not usually. Go to Barnes and Noble and look at the new-authors display. Most of those novels are about 300 pages. Go back a month later, and a month after that, and you will see a pattern: 300-page novels. That new-authors display should be solid evidence that your 700-page manuscript will probably get rejected. The odds against being industry published are already dramatic, so why reduce your chances from almost zero to zero?

But then there are the “my personal quirk” bits of advice that writers, agents, publishers, and writing teachers dish out as if from a science book about the solar system: Jupiter is the largest planet. Venus is a rocky world roughly the size of Earth. All writers should use outlines.

What? If Neptune, Uranus, and Saturn joined to form a superplanet, then who would be biggest? Huh? Jupiter? I think not.

Wait, that isn’t the point I was trying to make. Where was I? Oh yeah…

What? All writers should use outlines? That’s not a fact, it’s a personal preference, yet I come across that claim at least once a month somewhere in the advice-o-sphere. The fact that Stephen King does not outline is ample proof that not everyone needs outlines. He became one of the best-selling writers of all time without them. If outlines make you a better writer, then use them, of course. Personal fact: I write better without outlines.

More science

More science

I can give a dozen examples of quirks masquerading as advice that alleges to make us better writers, but, given space limitations, I’ll discuss only one. It really grinds my gears:

“Don’t have characters using profanity. If your characters are swearing, it means you lack creativity with dialog.”

Since lots of really good writers—who are known for their dialog— depict characters swearing, this advice is not advice at all, unless it is prefaced with, “If you get hired to write the next Nancy Drew book…”

Not having characters swear isn’t more creative or less creative. It’s a preference. It might be an unrealistic one sometimes, too. If you write novels and stories about NYC homicide investigators or about angst-filled teens caught up in a world of cheap booze and homemade drugs, for random example, PG-rated dialog would come off as silly and tepid, as if you are trying to avoid offending anyone instead of telling the story the way it needs to be told.

Maybe the advice giver read a poorly written, cliché-riddled manuscript with lots of swearing and thought, “This writer is uncreative. Look at the dialog!” But could it be that, even if the writer had chosen a less-profane route, the novel would still suck? Maybe the profanity-laced dialog is smoke and mirrors. Maybe the problem isn’t that the dialog is dirty… it’s that the writer lacks skill.

Or perhaps the advice giver has a visceral reaction to profanity. Visceral reactions are organic and words are intellectual. That requires a lot of back-and-forth translation between our primal brain to our cerebral brain. That is, there must be a rational reason I was repelled by this dialog. I know! I am a writing expert, and I react to bad writing. Thus, cursing is bad writing!

Oops. I’ve reached my self-imposed limit (see, no plan). Talk to me:

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A story composed entirely of one-syllable words

One of my most read posts ever is this one, a piece on why inflated, pretentious writing sucks. Part of what shaped that view was an essay I read in college that only used single-syllable words to demonstrate the beauty of simplicity. The title and author of that essay has long since left my memory, but the idea remains an important one to me.

I don’t know what made me think of it, but I decided tonight to try something similar with a work of flash fiction. Normally I revise the hell out of my stories and agonize over every line, but this is a raw experiment. That’s the fun of blogging, I suppose, not worrying about perfection or publication or adding to your body “legitimate” work. Tell me what you think, or try one like it on your own blog and post a link in the comments.

car

Barb Meant It

I know she saw me. I heard the noise, turned, and our eyes locked. Her teeth were bared, like a dog’s.

She meant to hit me.

In court, Barb tells the judge I “ran out.” She says she could not stop in time. Blah blah blah. It was pure chance she hit me, of all the scum on Earth, she says. Or, she tells the judge, it was guilt. That is, I ran out in the street to snuff it on a car hood from guilt for what I did to Gail, and by pure luck it was her car hood. A death wish, she calls it, which is a bunch of shit. I have no guilt, and, trust me, no death wish. I like it here. Well, I liked it back when I had yet to be mashed by a car.

Be straight, Barb. Own it. You meant to hit me. You meant to bounce me off your hood. You meant for my bones to break, my flesh to tear, my life to bleed out. I don’t blame you. You knew what I did to Gail. Worse, you knew I had fun with what I did to Gail. Poor Gail, still not found.

In court, I want to shout, “I know where she is, Barb. No one knows but me.” I want to taunt her with, “I played with her for days, Barb. She was lots of fun, first warm then cold.”

What would you do? Barb just lied! She said she did not see me, and they buy it for God’s sake. I want to hurt her soul with talk of Gail and all the bad things I did.

But Barb can’t hear me or see me. No one can. Not since I heard that car noise, saw Barb’s teeth and mad eyes, and felt that big, hard slam. A man turned to a bag of blood and bones, in a flash. A bag of bones deep in the cold ground now, just like Gail.

A ghost, doomed to walk that space not light or dark, up or down, in or out (or some crap like that… it’s not like they tell you), I go to court to hear Barb lie. She lies real good, and I guess she thinks court oaths are a joke too.

I mean, how could I have known Gail had a twin? A twin who is a stone cold bitch, natch.

************

My inspiration for this subject matter came indirectly from a “literary suspense” novel I just finished in which the killer, a mutilator of women, escapes at the end. I don’t mind dark or violent content (duh, I write horror stories), but I do find this conclusion distasteful and unsatisfying. Many good books have forced us to identify with a bad person or a criminal. However, this particular work left me feeling that the writer had two agendas: to set up a sequel and to screw with reader expectations, the latter of which is fine in some circumstances, but not in this one. Either that, or the writer truly thinks we like this repugnant character. I hope not. Anyway, the killer in the above story gets no such mercy from me.

Update: A two-syllable word found it’s way in thanks to a last-second tweak before I posted. Example # 753 why you can’t edit your own material.